If you are affected by cancer (whether you have been diagnosed, treated, are a relative, friend), then you will know how painful it can be, when someone else dies of cancer. How can we honour the pain of the loss, and the fear of what may lie ahead for us, and still keep going?
Because their death can touch us in so many ways and for so many reasons, leaving an unsettling effect on our emotional and therefore also on our physical wellbeing.
After I was first diagnosed with cancer, I started to feel what many of us feel on a regular basis: the mix of empathy and dread when someone else dies of cancer. And since I have been diagnosed for the second time things have not improved!
Witnessing the death of others from cancer is not just limited to people I know (or knew!). Often these are people I have never met in person, but may have been aware of from afar or followed their personal story unfold via social media. There are too many to mention across the globe, who generously share their own cancer experiences.
Shortly after the BBC journalist Rachel Bland announced her breast cancer was incurable, I was getting my head around the recurrence of my original breast cancer, as well as my dog’s mast cell tumour. Witnessing the cancer patient and advocacy journey of others like Deborah James is also witnessing how others engage with their illness, mortality and death. Witnessing can prompt us to reflect on our own choices.
Witnessing others can turn into witnessing our own turmoil.
The cancer news of another, whether known to us or not, can re-trigger and intensify our own experiences, hopes, doubts, anger and fears. Everything is under a magnifying glass. Unless we isolate ourselves from the rest of the world, feeling like this is normal and we need to find ways of coping with it.
With cancer comes uncertainty, because it is a complex and unpredictable disease. And as human beings, you, me and the next person, we prefer clarity. Rightly or wrongly, we have a need to control. And it can be hard to let go of that.
And so we develop this split attitude towards cancer.
- We may want to know everything about our illness. And we want to know nothing.
- When others die of cancer, we may want and don’t want to know – how much their cancer is like ours, and how much it wasn’t.
- We want to believe, what we are told. But we may find it difficult to trust.
- We hope next time it’s not going to be me. But we may also taunt fate – why not me?
We are strong and yet also fragile.
Why this split?
A. Because we are looking for clues:
Bottom line, will I die of it, or not? How similar or not, is your story to mine? What treatment did you get that I don’t?
B. We need to belong:
We want to identify with someone’s story, which is also ours. Because identification gives a much needed sense of belonging, when the experience of illness is very lonely.
But at the same time we don’t want to belong to any of it – the illness, the suffering and the potential death.
And therein lies one big risk. We may lose sight of the fact that cancer is complex. Over-identification with another can be unhelpful.
Take breast cancer – there is no single type. And if you have breast cancer, then yours may be different to mine – in its hormone profile, grade, stage, size, location. Just as much as our overall and other specific areas of health may differ. Therefore what may happen to me, may not happen to you and vice versa.
You may have the social or relational support I lack or vice versa. We both may be struggling financially because of the illness, or not.
We may be in the same boat, yet our positions are not identical.
Cancer is vague, yet excruciatingly precise and we may find the uncertainty harder to deal with than clarity, which we don’t get.
But we have to make sense of it, keep going and keep hope.
Here I choose only to speak for myself . If not hope for a cure, then hope that I continue to cope well with the difficult days, and that I can continue to live in peace with the possibility of dying from it a lot sooner than I want to.
And when someone else dies of cancer, then knowingly and sometimes unknowingly a darkness full of doubt, sadness and self pity creeps up on me.
Over the years I have become better at spotting it and that helps with riding it out and not getting stuck in it. Because what’s the point?
What good will come of this negativity? Nothing. What bad can come of it? Plenty.
The link between emotional and physical wellbeing is well established. Stress and loneliness to mention some have a detrimental effect on our immune system. Stress, depression, anxiety and loneliness are just some of the emotions people affected by cancer face in their lives, whether they have cancer or NED status (no evidence of cancer).
When someone else dies of cancer the death potential of our own cancer illness can get amplified and overshadow everything.
It can make living with the disease and its potential that much harder. That very relevant and understandable pain, however, can detract from feeling grateful for the life of the one who has gone, and for the life we still have.
The 50:10:40 rule
So when others die of cancer, I know I will be affected. And I let it. Because it is human, and I don’t want to turn into a machine, even if I could. But I try to keep to a rule. My mental, emotional and physical wellbeing depends on it.
50% empathy and grief for the other and myself.
I allow the sadness for them and for myself. It is like a time of mourning we deserve and need. But it must not become a permanent position to be in. That would not be fair on the other or on us.
10% self indulging my self pity and fear.
Both are human, should not be denied, but need to be kept in proportion.
40% gratitude for me – here – now.
I know some cringe at the mention of gratitude, when cancer is in the room. I had to work hard at getting to this position. And it is the best for me to be at. Because otherwise my life and my identity will become synonymous with cancer, with what I have not had because of it, and what I will never have because of it. Neither can I live with permanent cancer anger.
Cancer (and its potential) is part of my body and I cannot possibly be at war with my body or myself.
When someone else dies of cancer I try and avoid personal future gazing. I have to stay with the here and now; honouring that place, wherever I may find myself, and cope with it as best as I can.
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